I first saw a performance by Minneapolis-based choreographer Ananya Chatterjea a decade ago, just days after September 11, 2001. The work, “A Wife’s Letter,” was shaped around a battered woman’s suicide note. Using dance, poetry and music, Chatterjea and her dancers made a plea for justice—not just for the woman in the letter but also for the other women like her abused daily, around the world. The possibility of a civil society, one free of harm and degradation, seemed particularly distant during that emotionally raw moment in time and yet Chatterjea’s performance showed that the fight for women—by women—must not be interrupted. The stakes are too high.
This unwavering commitment continues to drive the work of Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT). “The theme is the centrality of women,” says Chatterjea, a native of Kolkata in the West Bengal region of India, who founded her company in 1996. She is also Associate Professor and Director of Dance in the University of Minnesota’s Theater Arts and Dance Department. “We make a women’s world through performance. It’s not that we dislike men. It’s because women’s stories are never told. Their stories are in fact different.”
Chatterjea and her dancers focus particularly on the lives of women of color trying to survive (and daring to thrive) in communities torn apart by war, poverty, gender-based brutality, religious fundamentalism, environmental degradation and the unchecked corporate greed that values profits over people. The work is, by its very nature, intense for performer and audience member alike, but only because the issues Chatterjea tackles are more extreme in reality than they could ever be depicted on stage. She isn’t afraid to journey into dark places or to dwell within them longer than many people would care to. But she also recognizes that hope can exist even in the worst situations and her work always leaves space for humanity’s better angels to spread their wings.
Current projects for Chatterjea include a four-part series exploring experiences of women of color globally who face—and resist—violence. The series launched with 2010’s “Kshoy!/Decay!” (using mud as a metaphor for forced displacement from homeland) and the recent “Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass” about the all-consuming desire for gold (conspicuous wealth) that drives dowry deaths and dangerous mining practices. Oil and water will be the focus of future pieces. The subjects of past work have included disappeared persons in the disputed Kashmir territory (“Women of Lost Homes”) and the experiences of prostituted women and girls in Kolkata (“Duurbaar: Journeys into Horizon”).
“We can’t just appropriate stories,” says Chatterjea. “Part of the work is to internalize stories and dig into our own histories. Each woman has in her past the same story. Women have known oppression and marginalization forever. And if we don’t have those stories we can find a way to imagine ourselves in the midst of them through voice, movement and breath.”
The training process for ADT members is rigorous and Chatterjea readily admits this is by design. Aside from spending hours upon hours exposing her performers to the Indian dance form of Odissi as well as yoga and the Indian martial art tradition Chhau so they are technically and physically fit, she also wants to be sure that the women who join her possess something more than a superficial interest in social justice. “There is no easy model of how we do this,” she says. “It’s a tough commitment for dancers in terms of time and the dancers who are used to just going to rehearsal and working with the movement . . . that’s not enough.” Dedication to research, deep engagement with the self in service of better understanding others, a passion for lifelong learning and dissatisfaction with the status quo are all qualities that describe Chatterjea’s dancers and collaborators.
Chatterjea employs a holistic approach in her dance making and this broad perspective causes her to weigh how every aspect of her work either contributes to, or detracts from, her overall social justice goals. She considers whether costume pieces come from sweatshops, the sources of grant funding, the accessibility of performance spaces, the ethical standards of board members, and the inclusivity of her company.
She also recognizes the need to build trust with like-minded colleagues working outside the arts. “Activists in the field are confused when artists use a piece to make a change and then walk away,” Chatterjea explains. Anything less than full commitment to taking action through her dancing would be a compromise in artistic and personal integrity. But she also recognizes that her approach to activism does have a different quality to it. “There are social justice organizations that say what is the legislation you have changed?” she continues. “Artists don’t change legislation. We change the way in which people question.”
Chatterjea acknowledges that other artists, including some of her peers, dismiss performance rooted in social justice as something that is nice to do but somehow unequal to other forms of creative expression. It falls short, for some people, because it is not always beautiful or uplifting or because it relies upon populist ideas and brash forms like political or street theater rather than the more rarefied tenets of institutionalized high art. “It’s not that we have to give up on beauty altogether,” Chatterjea says. “But if beauty and virtuosity have to be their own end then strangle me, I don’t want to be an artist.”
The possibility of transformation, on the other hand, thoroughly excites Chatterjea. She wants to see and make art that provokes shifts in vision and understanding, that promotes empathy and empowerment, and above all gives a platform to the voices and perspectives that are not heard or recognized by mainstream society. She finds the “dumbing down” of culture through television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” especially frustrating. “I think that the power of dance has been taken hostage in the service of some other issue,” she says. “I come from that whole background of revolutionary art in Bengal. For me art is about the movement for social change. I’m completely wedded to it.”
If anyone can successfully reclaim and refocus the transformative power of dance, it’s Ananya Chatterjea. This is her life’s work as an artist and world citizen. Her contributions on stage and in the studio make a difference one movement at a time, one woman at a time.